January 19, 1999
by Dee Entrekin
It is true that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" just as a book by any other title would be as good. But would you know how good it was if the title was so off-putting that you passed it by? Many books have suffered from poor titles, which is not to say that others have not succeeded in spite of their titles.
One such title that comes to mind was given a good book on successful careers. It was written by John T. Molloy, author of the best selling "dress for success" books. The title was How to Work the Competition into the Ground and Have Fun Doing It. It did not do well. Readers are drawn to books with interesting titles. Humorist Lewis Grizzard is famous for his. Even women who are aware of his chauvinistic traits laugh at his titles and read his books. You just know that a title as My Daddy Was a Pistol and I'm a Son of a Gun, Shoot Low Boys -- They're Ridin' Shetland Ponies, They Tore Out My Heart and Stomped That Sucker Flat, or If Love Were Oil, I'd Be About a Quart Low will lift your spirits.
Erma Bombeck is the female counterpart to Grizzard when it comes to titles and humor. Her titles are preludes to the hilarious antics of daily life women understand. I Lost Everything in the Post-Natal Depression, Motherhood: the Second Oldest Profession, Family the Ties That Bind...and Gag!, The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank, and Just Wait Till You Have Children of Your Own! need no hype to entice readers looking for laughs. All who have shopped at Loehmann's, an off-price women's clothing store specializing in designer labels, will understand the title of her 1995 book All I Know About Animal Behavior I Learned in Loehmann's Dressing Room.
There are titles that are exacting to the story told, yet the books are not easily sold to those without prior knowledge of the contents from reviews or recommendations. Katherine Dunn's first book called The Attic, published in a drab dust jacket, is one example. The title conjures up junk-filled dusty places in the browser's mind. The attic in Dunn's story refers to the unspoken thoughts in the mind of the main character, which contradict the words spoken from her mouth. Incidentally, a first edition of this book now sells for about $250, while her best-selling book, Geek Love, in first edition sells for around $20.
Many writers, whether they know it or not, have trouble with titles. For example, The Haggard and the Dogged, The Tumult and the Fermen, and The Damned in Deshabile were titles Norman Mailer wrestled with for his first book. An acquaintance, after listening to Mailer's dissatisfaction with these working titles, blurted out The Naked and the Dead. The shocked Mailer later thanked Bernard Harlan, asked if he could use the title, and paid him $35 for his help.
Harlan, whose story has recently been recalled in the literary magazine Bolus and Biblio, was a frustrated writer who had finally found his niche. Soon after his encounter with Mailer, J.D. Salinger called him to discuss the title for a novel he referred to as Growing Pains. After reading the novel, Harlan suggested calling it Catcher in the Rye. As word spread among America's great writers, he began to make a good living writing titles. Mailer went on to use Harlan's titles for thirty-five years. Tennessee Williams used his titles for all but one of his plays, and that one was The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore. Joseph's Heller Catch a Falling Star became Catch 18, and then with help from Harlan became Catch 22. With his suggested titles, Grace Metalious' Strawberry Valley became Peyton Place. Truman Capote's Snacks at Saks or Brunch at Bloomingdale's became Breakfast in Tiffany's, and William Styron's Eenie Meenie Meinie Moe became Sophie's Choice.
He wrote all of Ian Fleming's titles; otherwise, From Russian With Love might have been From Russia, with Hugs and Kisses. Nabokov, good with phrases but week with names, called upon Harlan to help him with two of his books. Bunny became Lolita and Donna became Ada. Herman Wouk's The Wounds of War became The Winds of War at Harlan's suggestion. Beneficiaries of his talent include Richard Bach, Erich Segal, Alice Walker, Larry McMurtry, Allen Ginsberg, Richard Brautigan, Thomas Pynchon, and others. Harlan's career flourished between 1948 and 1985, ghostwriting titles for 314 famous books, plays, and poetry. His influence with these writers is evidence of the value of a good title.
Dee Entrekin owns Entrekin Book Center.